Women’s pro soccer goes big-time in England. Why now?

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West Ham United's Mackenzie Arnold saves a penalty shot from Manchester City's Rose Lavelle during a Women's Super League match at Chigwell Construction Stadium in London on May 9, 2021.

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Thanks to a societal shift in how the British view women’s sport, along with increasing investment of money and talent, women’s soccer in England is set to enter into the public consciousness more fully.

A number of factors have helped push women’s soccer closer to the national forefront. The astronomic growth of men’s soccer has created a disconnect between players and fans, leading many fans to find solace in a women’s game still rooted in local communities.

Why We Wrote This

Women’s professional sports have historically struggled to attain the popularity and financial success of men’s leagues. In England, society may be set to embrace women’s pro soccer.

England’s female domestic talent has flourished in recent years, with the women’s national team becoming a top-flight international competitor. An influx of top U.S. players to the Women’s Super League, England’s elite tier, has also helped skyrocket interest in the past year.

Additionally, a landmark television deal will soon see women’s soccer aired on the BBC and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky cable platforms. A recent research survey found that 34% of British adults say they are now fans of the women’s game.

“There are some brilliant stories that we don’t know about because we don’t treat our female athletes the same way as we do with male athletes,” says business consultant and soccer fan Chris Paouros. “This is the chance to change that.”

It was some three years ago when Rodney Cyrus decided to stop watching men’s soccer in favor of the women’s version in England instead.

He had grown cold to the “cynical approach” of the men’s game, awash with billions and churned into a product, he says. So when Manchester United, one of the biggest clubs in the world with rich American owners, finally introduced a women’s team – 140 years after the inception of its men’s team – he switched over.

“I’m aware that they play second fiddle to the men’s game, perhaps much lower down the rung in terms of acceptance, history, and financial independence,” he says. But “there’s an honesty to the women’s game I like.”

Why We Wrote This

Women’s professional sports have historically struggled to attain the popularity and financial success of men’s leagues. In England, society may be set to embrace women’s pro soccer.

Mr. Cyrus is part of a growing trend that may now be reaching a tipping point. Thanks to a societal shift in how the British view women’s sport, along with increasing investment of money and talent over the past decade, women’s soccer is set to expand beyond its previously niche following and enter into the public consciousness more fully. 

More talent, more attention

A number of factors have helped push women’s soccer closer to the national forefront. The astronomic growth of men’s soccer has created a disconnect between players and fans, leading to many fans of the men’s game finding solace in a women’s game still very much rooted in its local communities.

Chris Paouros, a Tottenham Hotspur season ticket holder and a steering committee member and chair of the board at the Women’s Equality Party, underscores the “positive experiences” attracting disillusioned fans of men’s soccer alongside a “different audience with younger women and families.”

“Fans of the men’s game say they’re worried about the atmosphere and the aggression and how expensive it is. All of that doesn’t happen in women’s football,” she says. “One of the things I love about women’s football is that we’re all there to support our team rather than [insult] the opposition.”

England’s female domestic talent has also flourished in recent years, with the women’s national team becoming a top-flight international competitor. In the 2019 Women’s World Cup, the English national team finished fourth. And just before the tournament, Barclays Bank announced the largest commercial investment ever in women’s sport in the United Kingdom with its multimillion-pound, three-year deal sponsorship of the Women’s Super League (WSL), England’s elite tier.

Paul Childs/Action Images/Reuters
Manchester United's Jane Ross celebrates their first goal scored against Bristol City at a Women's Super League match on May 2, 2021.

An influx of top U.S. players has also helped skyrocket interest in the past year, with stars including Alex Morgan, Sam Mewis, and Rose Lavelle swapping the National Women’s Soccer League in the U.S. for the WSL. No one could have guessed that upon their arrival at Manchester United in the fall, Christen Press and Tobin Heath jerseys for three days outsold each of those of the men’s squad, another sign that English fans were captured by the bright stars of the women’s game just as much, if not more, than the men’s game.

The increased talent and fan attention has drawn interest from broadcasters as well. A landmark television deal will soon see women’s soccer aired on the BBC and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky cable platforms, paving the way for women’s soccer in England to broaden its reach. A recent research survey found that 34% of British adults say they are now fans of the women’s game, according to Barclays.

“You can’t underestimate how important it is,” says Ms. Paouros, who works as a business consultant. She predicts free-to-air soccer on the BBC will smash viewing records set by men’s games broadcast on Sky and Amazon. “There are some brilliant stories that we don’t know about because we don’t treat our female athletes the same way as we do with male athletes. This is the chance to change that.”

And more eyeballs will mean an increased chance of corporate sponsors wanting a slice of the action, she says, estimating that the results of “two broadcasting rights cycles ... will allow teams to be self-sustaining.”

Disparities remain

Glaring disparities remain off the pitch, however. The financial viability of teams remains tethered to their male counterparts, which can vary wildly; clubs like Manchester City, whose owners are backed by the wealth of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates, tower over others.

And big men’s clubs sometimes give their women’s team short shrift. When Liverpool built a new training ground for the men in 2020, replete with beach volleyball courts, the women’s side was excluded.

Waterlogged pitches remain all too prevalent in the WSL, resulting in multiple canceled women’s games in the winter, while players in the second division continue to hold down non-footballing full-time jobs while traveling long distances for games. “Those players are seen as professional, but not treated as professional,” says Man U fan Mr. Cyrus.

And women’s soccer, Mr. Cyrus says, continues to be an afterthought for soccer’s power brokers. When six of England’s biggest teams announced the ill-fated European Soccer League, only one sentence was devoted to the inclusion of a breakaway women’s version without further detail.

For all its challenges, women’s soccer attracts both disgruntled men’s fans and a new market of young women and families for its unique, family-friendly climate. Players remain connected to fans in a way that honors the game’s not-so-distant amateur past.

Though that may be changing with the influx of money. Fara Williams, a former England international who made her debut in 1999, retired in April, tethering the last remaining link between the amateur game and its evolved professional version. It’s been a decade since most players worked part-time jobs while playing for their respective clubs in semiprofessional leagues.

Now, there’s opportunity for female players to act out in ways the male players have gotten into trouble for. For example, as England entered its winter lockdown, some elite players were found to have traveled to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, seemingly for leisure, in violation of pandemic restrictions, upsetting fans and pundits alike. The controversy was “an opening of a window” into the world of newfound money in women’s soccer, says Mr. Cyrus.

Still, a down-to-earth atmosphere distinguishes women’s soccer as a potential competitor to the men’s game, and has enabled tightknit online communities on social media, says student Kristian Moe, a keen follower of the WSL in Bergen, Norway. Through Twitter, he’s found solace in a community of women’s soccer fans looking to get along with each other and share ideas online.

“I feel it’s a closer community than the men’s game. It’s not as big, so it’s more intimate, so it’s easy to discuss with people. There isn’t the same toxic environment.”

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